A vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Washington DC. Credit: Adam Fagen

The attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which, in taking the lives of 11 worshipers, represents the worst attack on the Jewish people on US soil. The shooter was explicitly anti-Semitic and white supremacist, telling the SWAT officer who apprehended him,”They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” An investigation into his history showed he had spat virulent anti-Semitism to no one in particular on alt-right social media platform of choice Gab and collected an arsenal of weapons.

His actions follow two years of anti-Semitic rhetoric becoming a louder and more explicit part of the general white supremacy that has leapt into the mainstream discourse since the election of Donald Trump. 

While Australia is in some ways insulated from the kind of extremism faced by the US, it’s worth taking note of where Australia’s discourse is at. In Monday’s Daily Telegraph, fresh reports of neo-Nazis infiltrating the ranks of the Young Nationals were published.

We have had explicit white nationalists interviewed on Sky News (again and again), Nazi slogans referenced in maiden speeches and white supremacist motions voted up by the sitting government in the Senate. Only last year, a racist group surrounded and menaced a Australian senator, for no reason other than his Iranian heritage. As Guy Rundle wrote in these pages, it seem more a case of when, rather than if, fascist violence makes its way to Australia

The question of how we respond to radicalisation is increasingly relevant.

It all grows from the same soil

“The process and structure of radicalisation and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, told The Atlantic, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct, says Berger. “The in-group [the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members] is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group [people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites] and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.”

Prior to entering politics, Dr Anne Aly was a counter-terrorism academic — she told Fairfax back in 2014 that the indoctrination, the manipulation into feeling you have no choice but violence is also the same across jihadists and white supremacists. “It is the same as white supremacy groups. They become a group or hive mentality,” she said.

Social groups and masculinity

Happy people don’t plant bombs, and happy people don’t behead people, and happy people don’t paint swastikas on synagogues. It’s just not the case. Disenfranchised, lonely, self-loathing people do that.

Christian Piccolini, Co-founder Life After Hate

On one level, these guys feel that they have been emasculated. They feel humiliated. They feel like they’ve lost something that they were entitled to. It’s aggrieved entitlement. They also feel like what was rightfully theirs has been given to people who don’t deserve it. Like black people: Well, they’re not real men. Or gay men: Well, they’re not real men. They’re effeminate. Or Jews: They’re not real men. So the constant theme is the masculinity of the Other. So, you join up and you get your masculinity back.

Michael Kimmel, author, Healing from Hate

Experts (and former members of violent racist groups) routinely point to social and familial isolation as a risk factor, often combined with a sense of injustice or persecution afflicting a group with which the individual identifies. Tony McAleer, a former member of violent white supremacist group White Aryan Resistance, says people who leave such groups are at risk of relapsing, partly just due to loneliness. “Early on, formers have to spend time in a void where they don’t have a social circle. That can feel worse than the dysfunction of the old group, and that’s when people go back.”

It takes a while

People are not in the group one day and out of the group another day… people have to exit on many levels. They have to exit in the sense of breaking their ties with people, changing who they’re hanging around with. They exit in terms of leaving the lifestyle, maybe the criminal actions or the violent actions they were associated with. And they exit in terms of changing their ideas.

Distinguished professor of sociology Kathleen Blee, University of Pittsburgh

And one size does not fit all. “There is no easy way. It is in-depth and a lot of work. You have to deal with each case intensively,” Aly said 

It’s ultimately on the individual

It is worth noting that many of the leaders of “exit programs” made their way out of the movement based on individual transformative moments rather than external pressures. For McAleer, it was the birth of his daughter. For Frank Meeink and Angela King, it was the Oklahoma City bombing. For others it was stretches in prison. For many of those who leave, the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of white supremacist movements simply pile too high to be ignored. As Piccolini puts it, one has to incrementally help the person change their perspective:

Because often when you change their perspective just a little bit, it allows them to see the cracks in the foundation of the ideology that they believe in. I don’t force it. I let them come to the conclusion on their own.